In several recent columns, I have explored what it means for women today to “have it all,” and how it involves balancing the four pillars that make up our lives.
We’ve explored the pillars of self, family, and community. In this column, I’d like to discuss the final pillar: work.
For many women, work satisfaction is crucial to feeling fulfilled. We need to feel like we are challenged, successful, and growing in our careers. But there are many factors that often hold us back.
Much has been written about gender bias toward women in the workplace. In her books “Fresh Insights to END the Glass Ceiling” and “Women Are Creating the Glass Ceiling and Have the Power to End It,” author Nancy Parsons clearly explains the unique challenges that women face, particularly as they seek to move into senior roles. These challenges can be summarized in one sentence: “Perceptions, biases, and stereotypes hold women back while perceptions, biases, and stereotypes catapult men forward.”
In her books, Parsons explores the research that identifies the risk factors that typically show up under stress or when facing adversity or conflict. For young women and female middle managers, the top risk factor is being perceived as a Worrier, someone who is unwilling to make decisions due to fear or criticism. Worriers are thought of as self-doubting, indecisive, and prone to over-analyzing.
Men, on the other hand, when displaying the same “worrier”-style traits, are often perceived as thoughtful, careful, and deliberate decision makers.
Statistically, men’s most common leadership risk factors include being perceived as Egoists, Rule Breakers or Upstagers. But the perceptions of each label again differ for each gender. When a woman is an egoist, she’s considered self-centered. A man who is an egoist is just extremely confident. When a woman is a rulebreaker, she’s thought of as inconsistent. A rule-breaking man, on the other hand, is a change agent. When a woman is perceived as an Upstager, she’s too opinionated. A man, however, is just selling his point of view.
What does this tell us about the challenges women face in fulfilling the “work” pillar of life? It tells us that perception is everything. And that we must learn to manage it.
When I work with clients in my executive coaching practice, the first thing I do is help them learn how they are seen by others. People’s perceptions have currency. And they can help or hinder your career.
The story of one of my clients, “Catherine,” is a dramatic example of this. Catherine is a brilliant scientist. She has a PhD from an Ivy League school and has often appeared before Congress to offer expert testimony. However, for several years, she had remained stuck in the same position at her job. In business meetings, her status in the room was often not clear – in fact, she was often asked to bring coffee. After soliciting feedback from peers, one thing became clear: She lacked executive presence.
Peers noted that she was often observed running between meetings, looking rushed and stressed. In meetings, she was quiet and hesitant to insert herself into conversations. When she delivered presentations, they were long-winded, filled with technical jargon and data. Her feedback even included observations about her posture, noting that it was hunched. This all added up to the perception of a lack of confidence and authority.
These were all Catherine’s blind spots. She was not aware that these perceptions about her were so pervasive. And in order to manage our perceptions, we must be aware of our blind spots — and figure out how to change them.
This does not require a complete reengineering of a person’s personality. When working with Catherine, I did not ask her to change who she is. I only asked her to adjust a few of her behaviors.
First, I asked Catherine to schedule meetings for 50 minutes, allowing her an extra ten minutes to get to her next meeting without rushing and giving the appearance of someone who isn’t in control.
Second, Catherine worked on her presentation skills and grew her ability to communicate more concisely. Instead of overwhelming listeners with jargon, she learned how to synthesize key points and deliver them confidently.
Third, she made the effort to contribute in conversations. This was a challenge, as it was out of Catherine’s comfort zone. So, we started with small goals — in every meeting, I asked her to speak at least twice, and not just agree, but share specific thoughts and opinions. After some practice, this became easier and easier.
Lastly, I asked Catherine to simply be aware of her posture. If she noticed herself hunching, she should stand up straight.
I worked with Catherine for six months. Within that time, she made those changes. They completely changed her peers’ and upper management’s perception of her. Soon, she was promoted to vice president.
Of the four pillars of life (work, family, self, community), work is one that women tend to pour much of their time and energy into. It is a shame, then, that forces like gender bias can hinder our efforts to “have it all.” But, we are not helpless. We can be aware of the perceptions others have of us, and how they can feed into gender bias. We can be willing to acknowledge our blind spots, and be open to changing them. If we do this, we can counter those forces, and we can be closer to truly “having it all. “